Sowing a Tapestry

Despite the obvious onset of sickness, DeShawn is in good spirits. Last week, one of the teachers at his school had strep throat. For 2 days, DeShawn’s voice has been hoarse and tonight, after his bath, he was clammy to the touch and a little too ready for bed. Looks like tomorrow’s agenda will include a trip to the doctor.

This week’s restoration activities at 118 Henry Street have been pretty low key. We’ve spent a little time upstairs in the (newly christened) west bedroom every evening. Touch up work like puttying nail holes, sanding the rough edges of the wood trim, and inspecting the last of the plaster wall repairs provide a leisurely background to DeShawn’s and my conversation. He’s quite talky and the topics of discussion range widely from superheroes to restoration techniques to scary movies. He’s quite excited that the west bedroom will be his room and wants to help with the remaining work.

Before his bath tonight, he learned how to use the shop vac. As a result of our long car rides, he’s learned to interpret stoplights and the shop vac has color coded on/off buttons: green (go) for on, and red (stop) for off. His use of the buttons was, thus, very natural. His technique with the sucking end of the house needs more work but his enthusiasm more than compensates.

Summer before this, I spent close to 40 hours repairing plaster cracks in the walls of the west bedroom. Not only were there obvious, open settling cracks, but there were equal amounts of crack repair attempts by the previous owner(s) that needed to be un-muddled. Heavy spackling over angular tape jobs, little or no feathering of the edges, and semi-gloss wall paint worked together to create shadowy, abstract shapes across all the walls that appeared and disappeared with the shifting sunlight.

Luckily, the trenches created by wrenching the old tape off was at least 4 layers of paint deep. This allowed me plenty of depth to apply an elastomer sealer to the inside of the cracks, a thin layer of patching plaster for strength and a final layer of finish spackling, nicely feathered. What about the standard dogma of paper tape and 3 layers of spackling? When I studied the plaster in the west bedroom before starting any repairs, almost all were slightly larger than hairline and generally connected to a window or door frame. I gambled that these were all either relatively old or, because plaster is a “living” material, the result of seasonal fluctuations in humidity and temperature.

Warning: the opinions about to be expressed about the art and science of repairing plaster are simple observations based on my limited experience at 118 Henry Street. In no way, do I warrant any generalizations of these methods to your house, lifestyle, asthetics, knowledge, experience or morals.

One year, four seasons later, my gamble has paid off: no new cracks. Some of my early work, that didn’t include the patching plaster layer, has redeveloped the same crack but no new ones. A lot of online advice about repairing plaster cracks includes the caveat that the cracks will ultimately re-appear. The reason being, as previously mentioned, the structural nature of plaster is far from rigid. It swells in high humidity and shrinks in low humidity. But, as long as there is no ongoing structural movement of the house, “aged” plaster shouldn’t develop significant new cracks.

My issue with the repair caveat that the cracks will re-appear, is that the accompanying repair method doesn’t take into account the seasonal changes in the plaster. Dried spackling is an inherently brittle material designed to present a very smooth finished texture. This works great on modern materials designed for maximum uniformity. But these same structural characteristics make it unsuitable for repair of plaster. Patching plaster or real brown coat plaster are the only proper repair materials, in my humble opinion. Spackling is best left for the final finish.

So much of work on an old house is like this. The melding of new and old must be done carefully if the end result includes preserving the original and historical. Simple, taken for granted things like the modern size of a 2×4 wall stud (not really 2″ by 4″), create issues when combined with 100 year old 2×4’s (actually measuring 2″ by 4″). Another example: wood screws used in residential construction prior to World War II were exclusively slot headed. Phillip’s head screws, a relatively recent invention, were used in manufacturing only. Replacing brass screws in an old house like 118 Henry Street quickly becomes an adventure of its own.

This spring, while visiting Carole in Columbia, a renovation company was working on a 1930ish brick house not far from Maple Street. The renovation commenced with removing all the windows, frames and all, removing all the doors, interior and exterior, and demolishing all the plaster walls and ceilings down to the support studs. Original bathroom fixtures and kitchen cabinets were discarded to the street for garbage pickup. When the demolition was done, the house was completely eviscerated, gutted in every nuance of the word. Not only were the insides gone, all trace of history was erased. The house character and spirit were lost, never to be recovered. As surely as I wonder why the renovation company didn’t simply raze the house and build from scratch, they must wonder why I labor for hours to clean up a single old brass door hinge.